Words by Joe Williams

Bursting onto the film music landscape with the skill of a composing veteran and the experience of a genuine novice, Jerskin Fendrix has made the most audacious debut in recent cinema history.

For audiences and industry insiders alike, Jerskin’s name will be a new one. Those tuned in to a specific corner of London’s contemporary music scene, however, may have been surprised to learn that Jerskin — a young British artist and close associate of Brixton’s culturally iconic venue The Windmill — had scored a high-budget, star-studded and award-winning movie.

And not just any movie, either. Jerskin has composed the soundtrack for Poor Things, the new and seventh film from acclaimed Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos, a director who for the past decade has been cultivating a career as the master of accessible art-house cinema. Although his first solo effort, Kinetta, debuted in 2005, more casual viewers will have had him put on their radar with 2015’s The Lobster — but it was his 2019 Oscar-nominated historical ménage à trois, The Favourite, that nudged Yorgos Lanthimos towards household-name status.

An artist jumping into the space of film composition is not unusual, and neither is a huge director embracing a new composer. But, unlike the Trent Reznor’s and Mica Levi’s’ of the world, Jerskin has not arrived from an internationally recognised band. Even more surprising is the fact that Yorgos Lanthimos has never worked with a composer on an original score before this.

Following the adventures of Bella Baxter (played by Emma Stone), a re-animated woman who voyages through a distinctly alternative Victorian world, Poor Things bombards its audience with a vibrant and feverish universe that is wholly consolidated by its sensational soundtrack. If Jerskin’s flustered by his sudden exposure to the limelight, he doesn’t show it. Speaking modestly from his flat in London, fresh from being flown out for the New York opening, Jerskin explains how two disparate artists, at opposite ends of the spectrum yet both beginners when it comes to score, came together to create one of the most original soundtracks for this year’s biggest art-house hit.

Jerskin Fendrix

How did you end up working on this project?

I think Yorgos has a really interesting taste in music. In fact, he has his ear to the ground on all new music, directors, choreographers, and artists; he’s very omnivorous when it comes to contemporary art in general. He got in touch with me at the beginning of 2021. He was aware that I'd done some kind of opera thing at the V&A (UBU). And then, out of that, I guess he just thought “I'll send this guy a script and see what he comes up with.” And that's basically what happened. He picks everyone he wants to work with, every set designer or costume designer, the actors — part of the way he gets to have his vision well realised is to have total curatorial control.


If the director was used to working with big name composers, there would have been this set formula for doing it — I probably wouldn't have slotted into that.

This is your debut feature film score — but it’s also Yorgos’. What was that experience of first-time collaboration like?

That’s true — it was nice to have that because I think if it was a director who was so used to working with big-name composers, there would have been this set formula for doing it. In all honesty, I probably wouldn't have slotted into that. So both of us were working out how this should proceed for the first time, which was good, because having chatted to a couple of other composers, I’ve got a strong sense that we went about it in an unorthodox way. But it worked well for both of us. I'm glad it was both of our first times, and it also meant we were both a bit coy with each other, you know; inexperienced. If, for instance, it was a director who’d just come off the back of working with John Williams, that would have just been a different proposition.

The thing is, it didn't feel unorthodox. It was more that I got to choose with Yorgos what the orthodoxy was, rather than there being a precedent. How we went about it was quite straightforward. He got in touch about six or seven months before filming started. Along with the script, there was this big document with all of the visual designs, all the production design, the concept art, and the costumes, which was completely indicative of how the film ended up looking.

What about the project specifically drew you in?

The script was extremely funny. It's such a warm script, you feel almost maternal towards it; it's very funny, sweet and lovable. It also felt so different from his previous six films. Those are very rich films, but the palette is quite subdued. And then you see this, which is basically like a visual aneurysm. It's very different, visually, from what’s been done before.


The music had to be made in the context of something that was so visually astonishing and unusual.

How did that inform your approach to the music?

All of that material — the script, visual treatment, and the actual cut of the film — was a good indication that I needed the emotional core of the music to be something specific, and also to allow it to be very vulnerable. I tapped into this kind of cuteness and playfulness, as well as some of the horror. However, even cosmetically, like the textures and the orchestration, all of that had to be represented in the recording and production. It had to be done in the context of something that was so visually astonishing and unusual. There are only so many adjectives to describe how it looks, but there aren't many other films that look like that. So that was enough. I spent a while contemplating how I wanted to get certain things across, and how I wanted to play with them.

Why do you think Poor Things was the first project of his that used an original score?

I think he had been interested in the idea for a while, but had not found the exact right project. It makes sense with this film because the other films have such a sense of being a commentary either on the modern world, like Dogtooth or The Killing of Sacred Deer — so it makes a great deal of sense to have pre-existing music. For this film, just because every other department has created something so unique and separate to form this exclusive universe, the music needed to match that.

Were there any references or conversations about your own music? Listening to your album Winterreise, there seem to be little flares or flourishes that hint at the DNA of the Poor Things music.

That's inevitably going to happen, but we didn't discuss any particular pieces that much. It was more like before I started doing this work, I wanted to understand what elements of what I was doing had appealed to him. I think what we generally agreed on, which in retrospect makes a lot more obvious sense, was the way we treat playfulness, and the way in which we treat humour.


We didn't ever speak about any other films, or composers or film music — the score was built completely from the ground up.

We both liked that as a format; being able to play with subverting expectations, or using hyper-exaggerations and romanticising elements — but doing all of that in the service of actually very serious emotions. We wanted to explore how humour can be weaponised into something profound, which isn't always touched upon. It kind of gives what you're seeing a different meaning compared to if it was more ‘tastefully’ or ‘traditionally’ approached. We didn't ever speak about any other films, or composers or film music — it was built completely from the ground up.

People might not know this, but you make an actual appearance in the film. At what point did they get you on set?

That was a few months into me working on the score. I think a month or two before they started, I was thinking, “Oh, this one scene’s got a dance.” And it became clear that it needed an actual backing band, maybe a string quartet or something. Yorgos and I were chatting about it and then the idea of me being on-screen came quite naturally. However, that was more daunting than reading the script for the first time, because I didn't know how to organise a group of musicians for a film.


There's a functional dancing scene, all in-camera, with real music.

So then I wrote the music, and then we went and got some Hungarian musicians together in Budapest. We rehearsed it for a few days. It wasn't just miming a performance; it's a functional dancing scene, all in-camera, with real music. So that was really exciting, and getting to visit the set as well was incredible — just fantastic production design and sets. It was great fun.

How much of your initial compositions made it into the final edit? Were there any surprises in the way Yorgos used your music?

A lot more than I expected survived in the finished film. I think the first time I saw the cut, which was in Athens, there were almost no sex scenes that didn't have my music over the top of them. Most of them are not really pieces of music that you would expect to go over sex scenes — I thought that was funny. There were a couple of unexpected bits in that. It would have been impossible to have written it that way, knowing it was going to go into a sex scene. I would have felt like an idiot. But it works in such a great way. I like how none of the sex scenes feel very Hollywood. It's much more realistic, much more stupid and funny and gross, and it was very interesting seeing how the music interacted with the sex.


There is a lot of music in the film, and its interaction with sound design is very important.

The music also interacts in an intricate way with the sound design. What was your relationship with the sound designer, Johnnie Burn?

Johnnie was great. In Yorgos’ previous films, he was in charge of getting the pre-existing music to sit naturally in these unique, heightened worlds. He has a great sense of exactly how, from a technical point of view, music should be used. He was incredibly helpful. I think John is just a phenomenally talented, extremely imaginative sound designer. He pushes that part of the craft far more playfully, intelligently and creatively than I think many do. We worked a great deal together on the mix because there is a lot of music in the film and the interaction is very important.

One interesting thing that came up a few times is that, because there are elements of the score which are recorded and mixed in a very sparse way, they can be quite disarmingly dry and upfront, and even if they're not that loud, just the fact that they're quite unembellished can take people a little by surprise and be disarming. Johnnie realised, “Okay, with these bits, I need to find out how to strip away all of the sound design that is not technically necessary.” The more provocative or unsettling the music got, he responded with the sound design, and then it went back and forth. So, not just the actual content of the music, but the way Johnnie contextualises in the film, massively contributes to the effect the score has.


The process of scoring this was completely new — it almost meant I had more power.

Going into this project, did you have any notions of what composing a score for a feature film might look like? Were there any things that you wanted to avoid or lean into, or did you arm yourself with anything beforehand?

Yeah, that's a good question. I guess that was a big question to work out at the beginning: how to approach this as an amateur, basically. I've obviously heard scores before, soundtracks I’ve noticed from films I really like. I've written instrumental music before. I think there would have been an option to try and ‘crash course’ myself in the technicalities of the whole process — which didn't seem that alluring. If anything, one of the exciting things about it was that, because I hadn't been a composer's assistant or on a course in film music or anything, the actual process of it was completely new — it almost means I had more power.

I didn't want to find out how other people did it, or find out from them what the process “should have been”. In the first few months,I tried very hard not to listen to any other film music at all. I had my own musical DNA. Psychologically, I very carefully laid out how I was going to go about the early stages of conception.

How has this experience of being catapulted into the limelight treated you?

One nice thing is that you hear things about the film industry, and how vicious it is — but everyone I've worked on the film has been extremely kind. I haven't met or worked with someone yet who has any sense of an ego, or gives the sense that they’re is trying to fuck with you.


I very carefully laid out how I was going to go about the early stages of conception.

Everyone has been extremely lovely and extremely supportive. I'm so glad to work with these people just on a personal level, as well as the opportunity of the project itself. And, compared to my solo music, part of the nice thing is it's not all entirely on me — luckily, every other artist working on the film has been exceptional. I think I've been very lucky in that respect.

There seems to be a general movement of musicians, particularly artists from scenes you’ve been part of, that are now interested in scoring. What is it, as an artist, that’s exciting about taking your music to the big screen?

I think that the batch of people you're mentioning, like Black Midi, Black Country, New Road, people like Ethan Buford, and so on — they're just very, very highly trained musicians and very intelligent people. And that's not true of everyone I see.


Artists need different creative outputs to keep the motor going.

I think one can make one's own albums, and do performances, which can be very creatively pushing. But at some point, people like that need to be stretched and challenged further. Artists need different creative outputs to keep the motor going, you know?

Are you interested in scoring again, and if so, with who?

I wouldn't want to do this score again. But it's been a really interesting process and I’ve massively enjoyed the work. It's challenging — challenging in a few very interesting directions. Creatively, in terms of scale — challenging and invigorating. Sure, why not? Emma Seligmann — she did Shiva Baby and Bottoms more recently. I think, in terms of the “younger talents”, that she's got something really cool going on. She'd be fun to work with. But I'm sure there's a lot of people who I've not heard of yet, who will be just starting to emerge from the woodworks in a couple of years. There'll be something very exciting.

Poor Things releases in UK cinemas on January 14th. Jerskin’s soundtrack is available here.